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Biden is trying to remake the West – and Boris Johnson is in his way

Boris Johnson welcomes Joe Biden during the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, south-west England - Credit: Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

Bonnie Greer says the US president’s ambitious plans could see a break in the special relationship

I still don’t know why I had my outburst about Ireland on that Question Time episode in 2019.

I said then that Ireland owed the UK nothing at all. That in fact, the UK did not and still does not fundamentally understand what Ireland means in the US and to the US. 

My quotes went viral, to my surprise, and of course, largely unquoted in the UK because, well, that is not the narrative. Not then. Not now.

Even Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff and later, as far as Trump World was concerned, effectively exiled to Northern Ireland as a special envoy, agreed with me recently on RTE radio that the UK does not quite get it. Even now.

So Joe Biden recites from his favourite poet: Yeats, and takes a line from his poem about the Rising called Easter, 1916: “A terrible beauty is born”.

And if you know the lines before it –  “Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly”  – then you know Joe Biden is telling you everything that you need to know about his feelings about Ireland and Brexit. 

In fact he has said that Brexit is divisive and allows in nationalism. Which Biden does not like because he is an internationalist. Serving for decades on the Senate foreign relations committee, the president knows how, to use a New York City phrase, “to make nice”. 

His foreign secretary, Antony Blinken, is a long-standing foreign policy person, a stalwart of Foggy Bottom, the nickname for the state department. Even though Joe called Boris an emotional and physical clone of Trump, no tea was planned to be spilt on the trip because that is not Biden’s way.

So they renewed the love with an update of The Atlantic Charter, signed by Roosevelt and Churchill at the beginning of WW2, pledging friendship and solidarity. This is the kind of stuff that diplomats find leaders to do together, and it was done. But beneath all of that is the Biden Doctrine, whose linchpin is the belief in something called The West.

The EU is a product of The West. So is the Good Friday Agreement. 

The EU, burned by the Trump years, is not sure that that four years of chaos and the carnage of Western values are over. The United States, for many, has become a kind of Bates Motel, where in the basement, sits a rotting corpse. Many Americans think, that too. 

But Joe is in the ‘Happy Warrior’ tradition of US politics and so, therefore, he has big ambitions. Big Hopes. Big Beliefs.

His intention is to restore the US to the centre of not only the political leadership of the West, but its moral leadership. He is a guy with a story to tell about transcendence over hopelessness, first from the example of his own personal life. But also in the reality of the two-term African American president Barack Hussein Obama, whose VP he was. 

But whether the likes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is available to hear it is another story. 

Trump encouraged the worst traits of Erdogan , partly by making NATO look like a club that had back dues to pay. Vladimir Putin, whom Biden has dealt with when he was vice president, was held up as the strong guy against the wimps, i.e. the EU and NATO.

His own toxic masculinity even further unleashed it on the world stage so that Being A Man became the standard from Israel and Gaza to the shores of the Thames and further than that. Biden, with his insistence on the First Lady being addressed as Dr. although the complaint from certain circles is that only medical doctors should be addressed that way not PhDs in Education, plus his vice president, among other things: the first VP to have a male spouse, Joe started as he means to go on. 

The president wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that: “This trip is about realising America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.”

A Western idea. 

Up against Donald Trump, the first non-Western president with his insistence on “America First” even on the world stage. It is the nativist play. Brexit is the same thing.

Yet, if we have an idea about The West now at all, even the one that Joe Biden adheres to, it is for many not a great one.

For many, it holds within it the idea of that thing called American exceptionalism.  For anyone born from the Sixties on, this idea could be greeted with anything ranging from indifference to contempt.  But Joe is an American exceptionalism kind of guy.

 Even though Boris has walked back his statement that the term “special relationship” is “weak “, and calls Biden a “big breath of fresh air”, it is important to keep in mind that the Johnson idea of Global Britain is closer to “Britannia Rules The Waves” than anything Joe Biden is about. 

Therefore the question of the age is this: is the vision of Trump and Johnson the way the world is heading? Or not?

The UK is useful to the US mainly because the UK is the window through which the US can see Europe. The UK is the newspaper that the US reads, and now that this is no longer the case; and with Ireland, too, coming into play, the real question is, “How long can the special relationship last if it ceases to be useful?”

The Royal family, from The Queen on down, was deployed to bring home, mainly to Americans back home, that the UK is not only still a player, but that the nation has a Special Family and is a Special Family to the US, no matter what disturbances are going on. 

Americans love the stability of what they call “England” and “England” to them is The UK and The UK is the West. 

The EU and NATO are The West; which, at its loftiest holds a big tent attitude toward migration and immigration. 

Because the belief is that The West Is The Best. 

In other words, the UK is looked at, by the US, as its Western civilising project; a nation of the world and in the world, a bit like James Bond, who can come ashore in a wet suit; and then zip it down to reveal a tuxedo.

The UK used to know how to do that. That is the UK that Joe Biden knows. Which is not a nation that feels as if defending its notion of culture: whether embedded in fish or the colour of a passport, is the fulcrum of its existence. 

If Joe Biden cannot retrieve the UK of Being In The World: European and itself, too, an idea that Churchill understood, then he could be reciting from another Yeats poem, The Second Coming

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

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